Dave Brubeck changed the sound of jazz in profound ways, unexpectedly becoming something of a pop star in the process.I first heard Brubeck perform in the early 1970s, at Purdue University. I wangled my way to a reception afterwards (the details are vague) and got him to sign a poster I had stolen from the student union earlier the same day.
Starting in the mid-1950s, in fact, he emerged as a symbol of jazz in America, and well beyond, gracing the cover of Time magazine in 1954 and selling more than a million copies of “Take Five” in 1960. To this day, the puckishly syncopated tune remains one of the most recognizable in jazz, though Brubeck didn’t write it – his alto saxophonist, Paul Desmond, did.
Beneath the popular acclaim stood a brilliant, uncompromising composer-pianist who challenged conventional jazz techniques, brought the music to American college campuses and helped break down racial barriers through a music uniquely suited to that task.
Here he is, with Bill Smith, Randy Jones, and longtime side man Jack Six.
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There are stories aplenty about Brubeck. This one, that he tells himself, is one of my favorites:
Though widely beloved as an elder statesman in jazz during recent decades, Brubeck’s initial burst of immense popularity, more than half a century ago, caused a backlash. When “Take Five” made him a household name, some critics and deejays accused him of selling out, he said in a 1990 Tribune interview.
"But I had a lot of fun with them,” recalled Brubeck. “One of the most internationally known disc jockeys accused me, right on the air, of going commercial.
"So I said to him, on the air: ‘OK, let’s play the (‘Take Five’) record, and you follow along and count it,’” said Brubeck, referring to its underlying rhythmic pattern, which defied the two-, three- and four-beats-to-the-bar techniques of the day.
"And there was this huge blank – he didn’t say anything.
"So I said, ‘Well, why don’t you do it?’
"And he just didn’t answer.
"At that time, hardly any musicians could play ‘Take Five.’ Now a grammar school kid can play it.
"But those were breakthroughs.”